Treatment of mentally ill prisoners should improve

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Your Feb. 25 article “State’s Care of Prisoners Criticized” highlights treatment needs for people with mental health issues incarcerated in state prisons. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice recently issued this report following an investigation in Pennsylvania prisons on the excessive use of solitary confinement with this difficult population. The report states that the constitutional rights of persons with mental illness and intellectual disabilities are routinely violated by their placement in solitary confinement when they need treatment.

This report is indicative of a larger national problem of how to treat mental illness. Many years ago, when state hospitals were used, the plan was for community placement in group homes. However, lack of funds and politics led to homelessness, petty crimes and prison. Unable to adjust to prison, they broke rules, resulting in placement on disciplinary units where they are cell-bound for 23 hours a day, exacerbating their mental illness. Dire consequences often ensued, including self-mutilation and suicide attempts.

While the state hospital system was far from perfect, it was more humane. Now, however, the DOJ and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections are working with a group of local lawyers who brought similar litigation rather than try to maintain a failed system. At the same time, state Rep. Thomas Caltagirone launched a report by the Joint State Government Commission that should result in sweeping recommendations.

These changes will greatly reduce the influx of the seriously mentally ill into solitary confinement. The report concludes that the current system violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Much more needs to be addressed, but this is a crucial beginning to employ treatment which is so desperately needed.

Executive Director
Pennsylvania Prison Society

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